Walk into any weight room and you're bound to find a big, beefy guy sporting huge guns and a light-brown weight belt wrapped around his stomach. He's got the huge guns, so he must know what he's doing with the weight belt, right?
Not always, according to some trainers and scientists.
"I usually don't recommend weight belts," says Chris Frankel, head of human performance for TRX, a company that produces training products and exercise programs for athletes and the like.
The reason, Frankel says, is that core muscles are "the body's natural weight belt" and are often the weakest link in a human body. "These muscles need to develop and get stable, fit and strong naturally," Frankel explains, and a weight belt can get in the way of that natural strengthening.
Popular since the 1960s and the 70s when "bigger was better," weight belts are worn for two primary reasons: to reduce the risk of back injury and help lift heavier weights. Under certain conditions, wearing a belt can be beneficial in both endeavors, but not always.
"Science shows that weight belts influence several mechanisms both for the worse and for the better," says Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor at the University of Waterloo whose research focuses on the mechanics of the spine.
McGill acknowledges that a belt increases the intra-abdominal pressure (IPA), which is a scientific way of saying it helps buttress the spine, but wonders if that's a good thing. If trying to test the maximum load your body can handle, then it is. However, for most normal workout regimens, more repetitions with lower weights are more beneficial than lifting maximum load. So where is the benefit to using a weight belt?
McGill says wearing a weight belt can cause other side effects like increased blood pressure. His research also reveals that wearing a belt may provide a false sense of security for some.
Frankel is a proponent of functional training where you learn to manage your body naturally. He believes in a philosophy that a stable and strong core is a prerequisite for maximizing the function, performance and durability of the extremities, ie. hands, hips etc.
As fitness strategies have evolved and more research has become available, use of weight belts has declined. Still, there are some situations where belts are recommended, namely when trying to lift extremely heavy weights.
For occupational use, McGill's research recommends that consultants should not prescribe belts until they have conducted a full ergonomic assessment of the individual’s job, or a very thorough analysis of their training/lifting technique and training program.
So the next time you see a familiar face in the gym wearing a weight belt, strike up a friendly conversation about why they are wearing it. Nudge them towards getting some professional advise on the usage of the belt. A mild dose of unsolicited advice never hurt anybody, especially if it's going to save them from hurting themselves.